Beautiful Heresy 101 – Catholic Idolatry: “Venerate by your Hands; Worship in your Heart”

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Idolatry

Catholics cop a lot of crap from fundamentalists for having statues in their churches. According to these fundamentalists, Catholics are committing the grave sin of idolatry by doing this. Even more damnable in the eyes of these heathen Protestants is the fact that Catholics bow down to the statues and some Catholics even go so far as kissing them. This seems like clear and undeniable evidence that Catholics disregard and stand in contradiction to the scriptures; our good God’s infallible words:

Exodus 20:1-6 RSV-CE

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.“You shall have no other gods before me.You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The basic moral principle that both Catholics and Protestants (and Jews and Muslims) agree on is that it is inappropriate to worship anyone but God alone. To worship something that is not God as God is the grave sin of Idolatry.

So, why do Catholics do this? Why do Catholics bow down to statues? There are lots of things to consider.

Veneration versus Worship: Which one is related to Idolatry?

A very helpful distinction to keep in mind is that between veneration and worship. Simply stated, veneration is a physical action that someone performs with their body towards some other physical object, whereas worship is an attitude in the heart of a person towards an object that may or may not be physical. In this way, it becomes possible to venerate an object without worshipping it, as well as to worship something without venerating it, and finally to both venerate and worship an object simultaneously. To worship anything other than God is Idolatry, however it is permissible to venerate almost anything without any Idolatry being committed.

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Idolatry

Some examples may be helpful. If you were ever to meet someone of royalty, for example a Saudi Arabian prince or the Queen of England, etiquette would require that you make some sign of deep respect towards the monarch, for example by genuflecting or kissing a ring. Now, some fundamentalist Muslims and Christians would get uncomfortable about this and their overclocked idolatry detectors would be pinging deep in the red end of the scale. However the vast majority of both Protestants and Catholics would consider this to be a socially acceptable expression of respect towards the Monarch. Reasonable people would not consider these actions of veneration to be idolatrous, because it is understood that we are not worshipping the monarch, we are merely venerating them.

It is the same with Catholics and their statues. When Catholics kiss, genuflect before and bow down to statues of Saints, Mary or Jesus, they are simply Venerating the depicted figures, but they are definitely not Worshipping them. There is therefore no idolatry occuring.

Another example may help. When a mystic sits completely still for an extended period and focuses his mind on union with God, his heart may very easily slip into a state of extremely intense and ecstatic worship of the good God on high. In this case, he is sitting completely still and so is not demonstrating any evidence of veneration, however within himself there is occurring extremely strong and delightful waves of love and worship towards God. It is appropriate that there be no act of veneration in this case because acts of veneration always have to be directed towards some physical object or location, however God does not have a physical location; he is simultaneously omnipresent and located nowhere. For this reason even if the mystic wanted to venerate God, he wouldn’t be able to. Instead he must direct his worship towards God in an abstract sense. So in this case, there is worship without veneration.

An interesting example for Muslims is the fact that during their five daily prayers they prostrate towards the Kaabaah in Mecca. Prostration is an extremely profound movement of veneration, so it is rather telling that Muslims pray towards a physical location, despite their intense aversion to idolatry. The explanation in this case is that their action of veneration – the Salat prostrations – are directed towards Mecca, however their attitude of worship is directed towards God alone, who has no physical location.

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Idolatry

A final example is appropriate. When Catholics engage in adoration of the Eucharist, this is an example of a simultaneous veneration and worship, because the Catholic belief is that the bread they are staring at has literally been transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. The Catholics believe they are literally staring at God, and so they may bow down towards the Eucharist as an act of veneration whilst simultaneously confessing the divinity of that towards which they bow in their hearts as an attitude of worship. In this case, there is both veneration and worship. Whether you believe that this is idolatry depends on your view of the Eucharist.

The crucial point is that veneration and worship are distinct. It is permissible to venerate pretty much anything, but it is only appropriate to worship God. In summary, veneration is an action of the hands, whereas worship is an attitude of the heart. Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God, but veneration of pretty much anything is always permissible.

Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria

The doctrine of theosis declares that God became man so that man might become God. According to theosis, the saints all participate in divinity to different degrees, and therefore it is appropriate to “worship” the saint to the exact degree that they participate in divinity. Of course, Mary participates in Divinity to the maximal possible extent, so it is appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, it is an established principle that worship is to be directed to God alone, and while Mary and all the saints have been truly “divinized”, when push comes to shove they are fundamentally human and not divine. The water is muddied: should we or should we not worship these saints who have attained to a combination of created and divine natures?

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Idolatry

It is helpful to introduce a helpful historical distinction at this point. There are three different kinds of worship: Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria.

Dulia is worship reserved for a divinized saint. To the extent that the saint is united to God and has divinity permeating his soul, it is appropriate to worship the saint. The reason why is that you are not actually worshipping the saint as a created being, but are instead worshipping the divinity that is united to that saint. To the extent that the saint is divine, we worship them, to the extent that the saint is created, we do not worship. The technical term for this mixture of worship and non-worship is the word Dulia.

Now, Mary has achieved maximum theosis. She is as closely united to God as it is possible to be. As such, it becomes appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, the fact remains that Mary is essentially human before she is divine, and therefore it would be inappropriate to give her the fullness of worship reserved for God himself. In this way, the worship we give to Mary is also the worship of Dulia, just as with all the other saints. However on account of the fact that Mary has achieved maximum theosis, she also receives maximum Dulia. Theologians invented a new term for this maximal level of worship: Hyperdulia. In essence, it is still just the worship of Dulia, however due to it’s maximal nature, it is called hyperdulia.

Finally, there is the worship reserved for God himself. This is the worship of Latria. To give Latria to anything but God would be the deepest idolatry, for this is the form of worship reserved for him and him alone. Catholics direct their Latria towards the Eucharist during adoration, or towards God in the abstract during deep prayer. To direct Latria towards Mary or a Saint would be gravely sinful, because regardless of how deep their experience of divinity, they are fundamentally human before they are God. Whereas God himself is Divine before he is human, and it is therefore appropriate to give him the infinitely elevated worship of Latria, rather than the lower and lesser worship of Dulia.

In summary, it is appropriate to worship anything that is divine just to the extent that it is divine, however it is important to pay attention to the essential nature of the object you are worshipping: If the object is fundamentally created before it is divine, then we should only give it the worship of Dulia, whereas if the object if fundamentally divine before it is created (ie, God himself) then we should give it the worship of Latria.

But what about the commandments against statues, images and idolatry?

Someone might be reading this and think “That’s all well and good, but in scripture doesn’t God explicitly say that it is not permissible to make statues and bow down to them? All the arguments in the world can’t change that brute fact.”

This is true, so it is helpful to examine the status of the law in Christianity. The idea is that there is the Moral law and the Mosaic law. Jesus abolished the Mosaic law when he died and resurrected, however the Moral law is still in force. It can sometimes be hard to tell which commandment belongs to which law. However in this case the church has identified the commandment concerning statues as belonging to the Mosaic law, and as therefore having been abrogated by Christ along with the laws concerning ritual cleanliness, clean and unclean foods, sacrificial rituals and so on. Whereas the moral law against idolatry remains in force in the sense that it is inappropriate for Christians to worship anything that is not divine, and it is inappropriate to give the worship of Latria to anything but God himself.

Idolatry

Idolatry

It is interesting to revisit the arguments that were put forward at the seventh ecumenical council, which was primarily concerned with this very debate. The fathers of the council claimed that God abrogated the commandment against images when he became incarnate: When God took on the form and image of the man Jesus, he for all time made it permissible to make use of created images as an aid to worship. God represented himself with flesh, and in doing so made it lawful for Christians to represent the divine via other created images. If the commandment against representing God with images were still in effect, it would imply that God had broken his own commandment by becoming incarnate! This is clearly an impossibility, and the only possible conclusion is that God has abrogated the commandment in question by his incarnation.

One final consideration from the seventh ecumenical council is worthwhile touching upon. When a Christian venerates a statue and directs his worship of Dulia towards the depicted saint, they are not actually worshipping the statue; they are instead worshipping the saint whom the statue depicts. In the language of the council fathers, the worship directed towards a statue or image travels through the image to the “prototype”. In this way it is not the statue being worshipped, but the saint that the statue depicts.

Conclusion

An easy to remember way of expressing the principles outlined in this post is the following: Veneration is an action of the hands; Worship is an attitude of the heart. Also, we only worship an object to the extent that it is divine; Saints receive Dulia, Mary receives Hyperdulia, and only God himself receives Latria.

Two Ways to Live: One True Gospel Edition – Christianity 101

Two ways to liveThe Anglicans in Sydney, Australia have a “Script” which they use to present their understanding of the Gospel to new investigators. Called “Two ways to live”, it gives a whirlwind tour of scripture in an attempt to convey a complete soteriology and quickly hammer home the idea that we are all sinners in need of a saviour and that the only way to escape destruction is to accept Christ as lord.

I thought I would put together my own version, which more accurately reflects the Christian message as I understand it. It follows the following sequence:

  1. Incarnation: The Eternal Battle between Good and Evil. The marriage between the created and the uncreated, God and the cosmos, Christ and his church.
  2. The Murder of God: Original sin, Mortal sin and the Unforgivable sin. The great divorce. Cosmic Tragedy, Total Defeat, Hell and Damnation.
  3. Resurrection: Gospel, Good news and a twist ending. Redemption, Atonement, Unconditional Promise, Predestination and Election.
  4. The Way of Salvation: Two ways to live; how will we freely respond to the gospel? The Sacraments.

I think that these four points fairly well capture the entire Gospel story in an easy to understand and remember way. And so here is my version of “Two ways to live”:

Two Ways to Live: Incarnation

Good and Evil

Genesis 1:1: In principio creavit Deus cælum et terram.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Two ways to liveIn the beginning there was God and there was nothing else. And out of that nothingness, God brought forth the cosmos and all the myriad created things within that cosmos. God was good, and the creation was also good, as it reflected God’s goodness just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. However the nothingness from whence the creation came was pure evil.

Evil represents the polar opposite of everything that God is. God is the infinitude of being; Evil is the infinitesimal rejection of being, which we refer to as “nothing”. God is freedom and joy and bliss; Evil is darkness and despair and hatred. If God is masculine, then Evil is feminine. All opposites are encapsulated in this fundamental dichotomy between good and evil.

From all eternity and up to the present day and even into the far future, the story of history is the story of the everlasting battle between the good God and the Evil nothingness from which he has drawn out his creation.

Now, there is a fundamental distinction between God and the creation: God is simple, eternal, a perfect unity, infinite, necessary; whereas the creation is complex, temporal, contingent, imperfect, constantly tending back towards the dark and evil nothingness from whence it came. This fundamental duality manifests in all of our lives as two ways to live: do we pursue good or embrace evil?

The Divine Marriage of God and Cosmos

Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

At this point in the story there is a twist. From before the foundation of the world, God chose to unite himself to every aspect and facet of his creation in the closest and most profound way possible: He decided to marry it. This divine marriage of created and uncreated realities has at it’s heart the λογος, or 道 of God.

Just as a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, so too Creation and God become one essence and substance in the divine marriage of flesh and λογος.

John 1:1-4,14: In the beginning was the λογος, and the λογος was with God, and the λογος was God.He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the λογος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Two ways to liveThe λογος entered the world in the form of the man Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, Divinity and creation were united perfectly and intimately. Jesus was God, come to the creation in a way that the creation could understand and relate to. Jesus came as a bridegroom, and the entire creation was his bride to be. The New Testament refers to Jesus’ bride as “The Church”. The church is not merely a building; it is not merely a group of people; it is the entire cosmos, adorned with beauty and being prepared for the wedding feast after which God will receive it into the marriage bed he has prepared, and envelope it in an infinite love that is so wonderful and elevated that no poet or bard could possibly capture it in song or verse.

Ephesians 5:21-33: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

So God came to us – his creation – in the form of a man, and proposed marriage. Like an inflamed, infatuate young lover, he sings to us “I love you with all my heart, soul and mind. So I pray from the depths of my being: Would you please return my love?”

The eternal battle between good and evil thus takes the form of an infatuation between the Lover and his loved. God tries to woo the world over, but how will the nervous, young and timid creation respond? There are two ways to live; will we choose the good path or the bad path?

Two Ways to Live: The Murder of God

Two ways to liveAs it turns out, the creation rejects God’s romantic overtures in the most definite way possible. God came to us with open arms and proclaimed his undying love, but we responded by torturing him, spitting on him, nailing him to a cross and leaving him to die.

This was the ultimate tragedy. This represented the defeat of God by his creation. The conclusion to the everlasting struggle between good and evil had been revealed: Evil won.

In the marriage of God and creation, God willingly bound his own fate to the fate of his lover, and the creation found itself united to God. They had become one flesh, so whatever happened to God happened to the creation, and whatever happened to the creation happened to God. And God had just been murdered, therefore the creation also became infected by death, decay, destruction, sin. The entire creation became destined for total annihilation and everlasting damnation.

Christ’s bride, terrified by God’s flaming love for her, rejected his overtures and flew away, hiding in the isolation of the outer darkness. This final and ultimate rejection of God’s love has many names: Mortal Sin, Original Sin, The Unforgivable Sin.

Two ways to live

It is the original sin because it was the one fault from which springs all the death and decay in the world, as well as our tendency towards the darkness and Hell which drags us down like magnetism and gravity.

It is the mortal sin, because it is the sin which leads to death. All men sin, and all men die. Every sin is a repetition of the crucifixion. Every sin represents the murder of God. God comes to us and says, “I love you, please love me back”, but we sin again and again, and in doing so, continue to drive the nails into his hands, feet and heart.

It is the unforgivable sin, because what could we possibly do to recover from such a sin? The only one who has the power to forgive us has been left hanging dead and helpless on a cross. God is dead, there is no other who remains to forgive us. God is dead and by the divine marriage we are doomed to die with him, cursed to pain and suffering and torment for all of our days as we spiral further and further down into the lake of fire and outer darkness, until at the very end of the torments we finally cease to exist altogether.

By killing God, we had judged him and sentenced him to the worst fate: the deepest depths of Hell, the most unspeakable tortures of the lake of fire, and the desolations of the outer darkness. At the end of it all we sentenced him to annihilation and non-existence. But our marriage to God means that all of us are doomed to the very same fate.

This sin represents the total defeat of the good, cosmic tragedy, the most brutal divorce, and the victory of Hell over our good and loving God. Nothing remains to look forward to. The future is bleak darkness, full of nothing but hatred, death and war. There were two ways to live, and we chose the bad one.

Two ways to live

Two Ways to Live: Resurrection

Two ways to live

But behold, there is a twist ending to the tale. Jesus rose from the dead! Death could not hold him and Hell could not contain him! He rose to new life, a new and glorified life from which he could never die again! Right as it seemed that evil and the demonic powers had achieved their victory over God, and right as God experienced the full depths of the consequences of our sin and rejection; he miraculously snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and turns the tables around completely.

This is called the “Gospel”, or “good news”. This is the core message that Christians proclaim. God is victorious! Hell has been defeated once and for all! The love of God is so powerful and seductive that ultimately the creation cannot escape it, even despite our most definite rejection.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

We refer to this glorious event as the “Redemption”, because this is where God “bought back” his lost bride. God has paid the price that must be paid, in order to win back the affections of his bride. He loved us so much that he was willing to descend to Hell and the terror of non-existence for the sake of his marriage to his bride, the Church.

Two ways to live

This price being paid, we also refer to this event as the “Atonement”, because it is the event which restored all things to how they should be. Once again there is love and joy between God and his creation, because by his resurrection he has secured the rewards of eternal life for us all.

This was also the moment which secured the “Predestination” of all things to heavenly glory. We have moved from one of the two ways to live to the other: Where before all things were set on a path towards Hell, destruction, desolation, darkness and torment; now all things are set on a path towards Heaven, Joy, Bliss, Love, and divine Relationship. There is a single destination to which the entire creation moves: God himself, the bridegroom who eagerly awaits to consummate his marriage with his bride.

God became man so that man might become God

The entire creation and everything within it thus becomes “elect”. Just as Jesus became the reprobate man, the creation that dwells within him also experienced reprobation. However just as Jesus became elected to heaven and glory, the entire creation that dwells within him is also elected to heaven and glory and beatitude.

God will not abandon anyone or anything. His love for his bride is relentless. He intends the salvation of the entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it. He will not rest until every one in the creation has returned his love.

To seal the deal, God has prepared an unconditional promise of salvation, which he desires to speak to every individual soul. However he requires our cooperation in order to spread the message.

Two Ways to Live: The Way of Salvation

Sacrament and Struggle

God has prepared the sacraments as a concrete way for us to come to him and return his love. In baptism, he washes us clean from all our sins and promises us that he forgives us for our mortal, original, unforgivable sin against him. In confession, he reiterates that promise, because sometimes we forget God’s love and forgiveness as we go through life and need to be reminded. In confirmation, he seals us with his Holy Spirit, which serves as a promise and guarantee that he will never ever abandon us. In the Eucharist, he gives us the gift of eternal life and unites himself to us in a marriage feast in which we literally feed on him. In the Last Rites, he prepares us for our most dangerous journey; the journey from life to death, from this earthly life to the terrors of Gehenna.

Phillipians 2:12-13: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Two ways to live

We are predestined to victory in the war, but we may yet fall in the battle. We still have free will; God will not force himself upon us despite his relentless, burning love. Even though he promises that he will love us forever and never abandon us, and even though he has infallibly secured the eternal glory of every creature, we may yet persist in our rejection. We may continue to drive the nails into Christ’s hands, we may continue to repeat and reiterate the mortal sin that doomed the world to damnation.

God calls us to repent of these sins, for we have been bought by his blood already. While it is true that one day everyone will achieve heaven, he is not going to carry us there against our will. God requires our free cooperation. So why wait? Why procrastinate the task of striving towards heaven? Why not repent and love God and Neighbour now? There are two ways to live: God draws lines in the sand, and one of those lines is death: If we haven’t responded to God’s love by the time we die, a fiery fate awaits us; the very same fiery fate that God himself endured to save us. It does no good to procrastinate the task of repentance. Far better to strive now, while we are alive. Salvation is guaranteed, but salvation is not automatic. God will not carry us to heaven, or force us to love him. We must walk the path on our own.

God will not save you without you

-St Augustine

Two ways to Live

Two ways to live

So finally we come to the classic two ways to live. Will you accept Christ as your Lord, saviour and bridegroom? Will you return the love of God? Will you do your best to submit to his guidance and strive for his holiness? Or will you instead continue living as your own king, pointlessly rebelling against the God who loves you? Such rebellion is indeed pointless, because it is foreordained that God will win you over in the end. So will you continue to procrastinate your repentance? Or will you seize the day and run the race to heaven?

God’s love has conquered, is conquering, and will conquer. Join the winning team; become a Christian today.

Eschatology and Soteriology – A Universalist Catholic Account Of The Last Things

I affirm the dogmatic, three-fold, Catholic eschatological division of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. However I understand these three realities in ways that are different to the standard presentation, and I also propose a fourth realm which I’m not sure what to call, but will tentatively refer to as Eschaton. Finally, there is also a state called Limbo which overlaps with both Heaven and Purgatory, but it is important to note that my understanding of Limbo is quite different to the traditional understanding.

Hell

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In my understanding, and following the current Catechism, Hell consists of “Total separation from God”. I take this at face value and interpret it as meaning that Hell consists of “Ceasing to Exist”, because this is the only way to truly be “totally separate” from God. As it says in the psalms “If I make my bed in Hell, you are there with me”

I also believe that Hell is empty, which is to say that no one will actually experience this fate. I allow room for the idea that Jesus himself descended to this Hell and suffered the punishment of annihilation on our behalf on Holy Saturday. However I am not dogmatically committed to the idea.

People might wonder what the point of this Hell is if no one goes there. This is easily answered: Without everlasting damnation there can be no salvation. God needed to save us from something, and this is what it was. In this way, the purpose of Hell is to remind us how bad it could have been, which in turn serves to emphasise just how much God loves us, and just how great his Grace is.

Purgatory

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In my understanding, Purgatory is both a punishment and a purification. Both the punishment and the purification are directly proportional in intensity to the amount of sins a person commit during life.

Purgatory is also what I take all the biblical references to “Gehenna” to be referring to. As such, I believe that Purgatory is experienced as “Eternal Conscious Torment” (as long as the word “eternal” is understood to mean “timeless”). I take biblical references to the worm that dies not, eternal punishment, eternal fire, the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal destruction as references to the experience of purgatory. Purgatory really, really sucks and you don’t want to go there.

I also believe that people who do not have explicit faith in Christ prior to death go to purgatory. I believe that it is impossible for someone who has not been evangelised and who has not come to faith in the unconditional promises of God to enter salvation. Salvation requires a full purification, but also explicit faith in the gospel message. Without these two things, it is impossible to experience heaven.

Heaven

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In my understanding, Heaven is the place where someone goes when they have perfect, explicit faith in the unconditional promise of salvation, and when their soul has been fully purified of all stain of sin. Implicit faith is not enough. A loving heart is not enough. The soul must be perfect and their faith must be explicit.

The degree of reward received in heaven is directly proportional to the good works that the person performed during life. It is an abstract, spiritual sort of pleasure that consists of the direct apprehension of God and his pure beauty, truth, goodness, love, mercy, justice and so forth.

Where my view of heaven starts to differ from the standard account, is that I believe that it is impossible for the people in heaven to actually enjoy the fullness of heavenly bliss while their friends and family remain suffering in Gehenna. I believe that the people in Heaven can see the suffering in Gehenna, and they are horrified by it. As such, so long as there is a single soul remaining in the dark torments of Gehenna, this will cause a chain reaction of compassionate empathy that effectively nullifies the supreme joy and bliss of everyone in heaven.

I believe that because of this, the people in heaven will organise missionary trips to purgatory. They will descend from Heaven and minister to the poor souls who are trapped in Gehenna, preaching the Gospel to them, reasoning with them, loving them, and generally doing everything they can in order to bring these poor souls to perfect faith and repentance so that they may escape the darkness. This missionary activity will continue so long as there is a single soul remaining trapped in Gehenna.

Limbo

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Limbo is not really “another state”, and is instead just a dramatically reduced experience of Purgatory and Heaven. People who did not do many or any good deeds during life, but who also did not commit many or any sins during life, therefore do not merit much or any punishment and reward in the afterlife. Therefore regardless of whether these people end up in Heaven or Purgatory, the experience will be much the same: very blank and devoid of any content. This “nothing” state receives the name “Limbo” in my theology. Notice that it is different to “The limbo of the infants” and “The limbo of the fathers” from traditional Catholic scholasticism, although aborted babies and young infants do indeed experience my version of Limbo, on account of the fact that they haven’t sinned or loved at all during life.

Eschaton

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Where the previous states were disembodied spiritual realities which the soul experiences alone, this state has to do with the resurrection and new creation.

The eschaton is the final state, the end of history, the teleos of creation. In this final state, there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Christ is lord. All the gentiles will be saved, all of Israel will be saved. Even all of the fallen Angels will have been saved.

The eschaton will not arrive until the missionary activity from heaven has succeeded and therefore every soul who is stuck in Gehenna has escaped. The joy of salvation cannot be complete until everyone has been fully saved. The eschaton represents the state of affairs when this has finally occurred. It is the most glorious state of all: No longer is there any impediment to the saved enjoying their salvation, because all of their friends and families have been saved too!

Furthermore, this is simultaneous with the resurrection, the Parousia, the final (general) judgement and the new creation. All the disembodied souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies, in a renewed and glorified physical reality that encompasses all of history and includes everything that has ever lived or existed. This is the true and final end to the story. So long as people fail to achieve heaven, heaven can’t really be heaven. But in the eschaton, everyone will have finally achieved salvation and therefore the joy of salvation will be complete. Finally we will all be able to enjoy God to the full, experiencing unadulterated, uninterrupted heavenly bliss, as well as perfect love for all people, all things, all creation and God himself.

Conclusion

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Heaven is not what we should be aiming for, and purgatory is not what we should be settling for. The eschaton is what we are working towards, and the good news of the gospel is that we can’t fail! Salvation is guaranteed, but it is not automatic: we still have to walk the path. But the good news is that we will walk the path. God guarantees and promises us that in the end, we will fight the good fight, we will run the race, we will win the prize. There is a crown waiting for each of us, and in the eschaton we will all be victorious, to the praise and glory of God.

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

Below is Parry’s article—originally published as Bell’s Hells: seven myths about universalism in the Baptist Times.


You can be a good evangelical without believing in eternal punishment, writes Robin Parry

On Tuesday February 22 2011, Rob Bell – the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – posted the promotional video for his new book, Love Wins.

Rumours started spreading almost immediately that Bell’s forthcoming book advocated universalism and, unsurprisingly, the Internet went white-hot. On Saturday February 26 Justin Taylor, a well-known neo-Calvinist, posted his provisional reflections about Bell as a universalist on The Gospel Coalition blog and, reportedly, by that evening about 12,000 people had recommended his post on Facebook.

That same day Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. And from there the number of blog posts exploded. Overnight, universalism went from being a marginal issue that most evangelicals felt that they could ignore to being the next big debate.

Feelings are running high at the moment and a lot of strong language is being used. I think that if the church is to have a fruitful discussion on this matter (rather than a bad tempered battle-to-the-death) then it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what Christian universalists actually believe. A lot of myths about universalism are informing the current debate and I want to explore seven of them very briefly below.

To begin it will be helpful to have a quick definition of Christian universalism. Christian universalists are (mostly) orthodox, Trinitarian, Christ-centred, gospel-focused, Bible-affirming, missional Christians. What makes them universalists is that they believe that God loves all people, wants to save all people, sent Christ to redeem all people, and will achieve that goal.

In a nutshell, it is the view that, in the end, God will redeem all people through Christ. Christian universalists believe that the destiny of humanity is ‘written’ in the body of the risen Jesus and, as such, the story of humanity will not end with a tomb.

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

Many an online critic of Bell has complained that he, along with his universalist allies, does not believe in hell. Here, for instance, is Todd Pruitt: ‘Rob Bell . . . denies the reality of hell.’ Mr BH adds, ‘To Hell with No Hell. To Hell with what’s being sold by Rob Bell.’

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

Historically all Christian universalists have had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others do not).

So it is not hell that universalists deny so much as certain views about hell. (To complicate matters a little there have even been a few universalists that believed that hell is an eternal, conscious torment! An unusual view for a universalist but possible – honest.)

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

One does not have to read Bell’s detractors for long before coming across the following sentiments: Universalists are theological ‘liberals’ that reject the ‘clear teaching of the Bible’. Surely all good Bible-believing Christians will believe that some/many/most people are damned forever? ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is a betrayal of biblical truth,’ says R Albert Mohler. David Cloud, concerned about Bell’s questioning classical conceptions of hell, writes, ‘It is evil to entertain questions that deny Bible truth.’

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

Historically, Christian universalists have been Bible-affirming believers and that remains the case for many, perhaps the majority, today. The question is not ‘Which group believes the Bible?’ but, ‘How do we interpret the Bible?’

The root issue is this: there are some biblical texts that seem to affirm universalism (eg Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:11) but there are others that seem to deny it (eg Matthew 25:45; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelations 14:11; 20:10-15).

At the heart of the biblical debate is how we hold these two threads together. Do we start with the hell passages and reread the universalist texts in the light of them? That is the traditional route. Or, do we start with universalist passages and reinterpret the hell texts in the light of them? That is what many universalists do.

Or do we try to hold both sets of biblical teachings in some kind of tension (and there are various proposals for how we might do that – some leaning towards traditionalism, others leaning towards universalism)?

There is also the question of wider biblical-theological themes and their relevance. For instance, biblical teaching on God’s love, justice, punishment, the cross-resurrection, covenant, etc. How might reflection on those matters influence our theology of hell?

This is not just about finding ‘proof texts’ to whip your opponent with (both sides are capable of that) but about making best sense of the Bible as a whole. And when we follow the big plotline of the scriptures, which ending to the story has the best ‘fit’? Universalists believe that the ending in which God redeems his whole creation makes the most sense of the biblical metanarrative. Traditionalists disagree.

My point is that this debate is not a debate between Bible-believing Christians (traditionalists) and ‘liberals’ (universalists). It is, to a large extent, a debate between two sets of Bible-believing Christians on how best to understand scripture.

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

Blogger Denny Burke thinks that Bell’s ‘weak’ view of hell if based on a ‘weak’ view of sin which, in turn, is based on a ‘weak’ view of God: ‘Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small.’

Universalists ‘obviously’ think that sin isn’t something to get too worked up about – after all they believe that God’s job is to forgive people, right?

Once again we are in the realm of mythology. Propose a view on the seriousness of sin as strong as you wish and you’ll find universalists who would affirm it. Does sin affect every aspect of human life? Is it an utter horror that degrades our humanity and warrants divine wrath? Does it deserve eternal punishment?

Universalists could affirm all of these things so long as they believed that God’s love, power, grace, and mercy are bigger and stronger than sin. Universalists do not have a low view of sin, they have a high view of grace: ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’

Myth: Universalists believe in God’s love but forget his justice and wrath

Here is Britten Taylor’s response to Rob Bell: ‘God is love. But, He is also just. God pours out His mercy, but He also pours out His wrath.’ The implication is that universalists overplay divine love and forget that God is also holy and just. Right? Wrong.

Christian universalists have a lot to say about God’s holiness, justice, and even his wrath. Typically they think that God’s divine nature cannot be divided up into conflicting parts in such a way that some of God’s actions are loving (eg, saving sinners) while others are just and full of anger (eg, hell).

They see all of God’s actions as motivated by ‘holy love’. Everything God does is holy, completely just, and completely loving.

So whatever hell is about it must be compatible not simply with divine justice but also with divine love. Which means that it must, in some way, have the good of those in hell as part of its rationale.

Universalists feel that one potential danger in traditional theologies of hell is that while they make much of God justice and anger they appear to be incompatible with his love and, as a result, they divide up the unity of God’s nature.

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

Here is Kevin Mullins’ definition of universalism in his discussion of Bell: ‘Universalism – the belief that everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted as God’s people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions are just different expressions of the same Truth.’

That idea is what underlies crparke’s comment that, ‘If Rob Bell denies hell then he denies the need for a “savior” and makes the sacrifice of Jesus irrelevant.’

Here our Internet conversation partners have confused universalism (the view that God will one day save all people through Christ) with pluralism (the view that there are many paths to God and that Jesus is simply one of them). But Christian universalists deny pluralism. They insist that salvation is found only through the atoning work of Christ. Without Jesus nobody would be redeemed!

Now there is a disagreement between Christians about whether one needs to have explicit faith in Jesus to share in the salvation he has bought. Some Christians, called exclusivists, think that only those who put their trust in the gospel can be saved.

Others, called inclusivists, think that it is possible to be saved through Christ even without explicit faith in him.

Thus, for inclusivists it is possible to be saved even if, for instance, you have never heard the gospel. Inclusivists would maintain that if someone responds in humility, love, and faith to the truncated divine revelation that they have received then God can unite them to Christ and they may be considered as, perhaps, ‘anonymous Christians’.

But we need to be careful not to confuse the discussion between exclusivists and inclusivists with the issue of universalism. Many people make that mistake. The former debate concerns how people can experience the salvation won by Christ while the latter concerns how many people will be saved. Two different questions.

Thus, some universalists are inclusivists (eg, Rob Bell) but others are exclusivists, maintaining that only people who trust in the gospel can be saved. (Obviously exclusivist universalists have to believe that salvation is possible after death.)

But whether one is speaking of exclusivist or inclusivist universalists, neither relegate Jesus to the sidelines.

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

Here is Matt: ‘I do think the Scripture is clear that salvation at least has some limits. If it doesn’t, then preaching and evangelism are ultimately wasted activities.’ And R Albert Mohler worries that, ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this . . . has severe . . . evangelistic consequences.’ Why, after all, would anyone bother to go through all the effort and struggle of evangelism if God is going to save everyone in the end anyway?

So must universalism undermine evangelism? Not at all. There are many reasons to engage in mission and evangelism, not least that Christ commands it. And it is a huge privilege to join with God in his mission of reconciling the world to himself. The gospel message in God’s ‘foolish’ way of setting the world right so, of course, universalists will want to proclaim it.

Fear of hell is not the only motivation for mission. And, what is more, the majority of universalists do fear hell. Whilst they may not view it as ‘the end of the road’, they still consider it to be a dreadful state to be avoided.

And historically universalists have not run from mission. Here are the words of an eighteenth century Baptist universalist, Elhanan Winchester, who was himself an evangelist: ‘There is no business or labour to which men are called, so important, so arduous, so difficult, and that requires such wisdom to perform it [as that of the soul-winner]. The amazing worth of winning souls, makes the labour so exceeding important, and of such infinite concern’ (sermon on the death of John Wesley, 1791).

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

Here is Frank: ‘Oh thank goodness Rob Bell is here to explain that we can do whatever we want because (drum roll please) . . . there’s no consequence, there’s no hell!’ And Frank is not alone. During 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many Christians were especially worried that if the fear of hell was reduced people would have little to constrain their sinful behaviour. Thus universalism, they feared, would fuel sin.

But the fear of punishment is not the only motive for avoiding sin and, even if it were, universalism does, as has already been mentioned, have space for some such fear. But far more important for holy living – indeed the only motive for heartfelt holy living – is the positive motivation inspired by love for God.

Who, after all, would reason, ‘I know that God created me, seeks to do me good, sent his Son to die for me, and that he will always love me…so I must hate him!’? On the contrary, the revelation of divine love solicits our loving response (1 John 4:19).

Clearly there is an important debate to be had but if we desire more light and less heat we need to start by getting a clearer understanding of the view under discussion.

Homosexuality – Exploration Of Same-sex Marriage Under Catholic Moral Law: “It’s Okay to be Gay”

The Boundaries Of The Loves

There are four kinds of love: Agapic, Platonic, Romantic and Erotic.

Agape is the best kind of love: it is the kind of love embodied by Christ on the cross, it is the love which lies at the essence of divinity. Agape is a love that we are called to extend to literally everyone – including our enemies. This love has the purpose of producing a just, stable, ideal society.

Platonic love is the love between friends. It occurs between people of any gender. Platonic love is ordered towards the individual enrichment of each of the friends. Friendships may arise and dissolve spontaneously as time goes by.

Romantic love is for committed lovers. The lovers may be of any gender, male/male, female/female or male/female. Speculatively, it may be possible between more than two people at once. This love is ordered towards the vocation or mission of the people involved: they are dedicating their lives to their partners. Vows and formal promises may be made, binding the partners together. In principle, these relationships are dissolvable, however this requires official process and dispensation, and ideally the promises are adhered to for an entire lifetime.

Erotic love is reserved for a man united to a woman in marriage. It is ordered towards the creation of children, and the strengthening of the indissolvable bond that exists between this married couple. Divorce is not possible; once a marriage has been contracted, it can never be dissolved (even if all the different loves involved become absent).

Does Catholic Moral Theology Allow For Same-sex Marriage?

Philosophical Background:

  1. Everything has a purpose. To thwart something’s purpose is to sin.
  2. The purpose of erotic love is to create children and bind married spouses together. Anything which thwarts this dual purpose is sinful.

Catholic Sexual Ethics Summarised As Five Simple Rules:

  1. It is sinful to ejaculate outside a vagina
  2. It is sinful for a person to engage in erotic stimulation if they do not also have the intention and ability to engage in completed copulative sex (ie. ejaculation inside a vagina) some time in the future.
  3. It is sinful to engage in erotic stimulation with someone to whom you are not married.
  4. Sodomy (erotic anal stimulation) is always and everywhere sinful.
  5. Only a committed relationship between a man and a woman can be referred to as a marriage.

Implications Of These Rules:

  1. The sort of romantic commitment embodied in marriage is forbidden between no two people, regardless their of gender, age, race and so on (That is, there is no Catholic moral principle preventing such love): Men can romantically commit to men; women can romantically commit to women. The only restriction is that of mental and emotional maturity and rationality being possessed by both parties entering into the relationship. The church needs to recognise this and make allowances for official, formal, liturgical vows of public commitment to be made between same-sex couples. We also need some new terminology to describe such relationships: they are not marriages, but they are not mere friendships either; perhaps “Consecrated Romance” would be appropriate.
  2. Erotic stimulation is forbidden between same-sex couples, as these relationships do not amount to marriage.

Observations:

  1. Masturbation is sinful (rules one and two).
  2. Condoms are sinful (rule one)
  3. Romantic physical signs of affection between same-sex couples are fine. For example hugging, hand holding, kissing on the cheek and briefly pecking on the lips are all permissible.
  4. Erotic stimulation between same-sex couples is forbidden, so french kissing is not permissible in public or in private and genital stimulation is strictly out of bounds.
  5. Oral sex is permissible, but only in the context of foreplay between a married couple.
  6. Erotic stimulation is something that should only occur in private. French kissing in public is inappropriate even if the couple are married.
  7. Same-sex attraction is not a disorder unless it strays into eroticism. It is perfectly ok to feel romantic attraction to someone of the same sex.

The Bottom Line:

Same-sex marriage is possible so long as you don’t call it marriage and the couple doesn’t have sex.

Catholic Moral Law Theology – Condoms and Contraception are Murder

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A culture that embraces contraception is a culture that cheapens sex by taking the procreative element out of it. All of a sudden sex becomes solely about love and pleasure and has nothing to do with marriage, family and babies; it becomes consequence free; it becomes something to be engaged in as often as possible with as many people as possible.

More often than not, people won’t bother with contraception as they get wrapped up in the heat of the moment. Next thing you know the “unplanned pregnancy” statistics are sky-rocketing, as so many people are having insane amounts of unprotected casual sex.

With so many unplanned pregnancies, many young parents are pressured into seeking abortions. Abortion rates fly through the roof. People start to depend on brutal murder of their unborn baby as a form of last minute contraception.

And apparently the leftie solution to all of this is to deny that a baby is a baby and that murder is murder, while screaming “More condoms! More casual sex! More abortions!”

I have no idea how our culture of death can ever recover from the situation in which it finds itself. Technology only marches forwards, not backwards. Condoms and abortions are something we have to live with now. How can we recover a reverence for life and respect for the procreative, conjugal act under such circumstances?

Pray for all the Holy Innocents throughout history. Memory eternal

Orthodoxy 101 – Anselm was Wrong: Wounded Pride and Everlasting Punishments

The Anselmian argument in favour of everlasting punishment is fallacious. Here is a brief summary of the argument:

Every sin against God is an infinite sin because God has infinite dignity and the magnitude of sin is determined by the dignity of the one who is wronged. Infinite sin deserves an infinite punishment, therefore those who sin descend into the torturous flames of Hell and remain there for all eternity

This is unbiblical. The biblical view of retribution is “an eye for an eye”: the harm bestowed in retribution should be equal to the harm caused by the offence. Seeing as it is impossible to harm or offend God (he is immutable), sin simply cannot lead to any sort of divine retribution under this schema.

Instead, sin is it’s own punishment as the primary person who is harmed by sin is the sinner. Someone who hates and curses God does not harm God: they harm themselves. And so God never punishes anyone, he only ever rescues us and liberates us from slavery and bondage to selfishness, death, and pride.

There will indeed be a cosmic equalisation, where the rich will be made poor and the poor will be made rich. Hitler will experience the harm he has caused. Rapists will be made to feel the terror and torment they have inflicted. Justice will be done.

But the ending of the story is reconciliation, forgiveness and joy: Hitler will sing songs with the Jews, rapists and their victims will embrace, broken families will reunite.

At the centre of it all will be pure, triune love. The three divine, perichoretic circles that drive the cosmos to perfection. Love wins, Hell loses, and this is the only eternal reality we need to anticipate.

Hermeneutics 101 – What is Everlasting Hell?: Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting punishment and perpetual torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

everlasting hellIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

Everlasting PunishmentI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

Testimony – Catholic to Universalist

(Go to Part 1: “Agnostic to Christian”)

Clashing with my Past

It was mid-2014. After my realisation that I was already a Catholic, I begun to do a total practical transition from Protestantism to Catholicism: I stopped attending church at St Barnabas, convinced that it was all false teaching. I slowly stopped attending Credo events and disentangled myself from Credo people. I was still friendly with many of the wonderful people I had met in Credo, for example Poya, Luke Simpson and Timothy Ho, but I did not go out of my way to hang out with them.

During this time I was still on the leadership team of the FOCUS ministry. I began to second guess myself. Should I really be on this team if I am a Catholic? If I believe that the FOCUS team is spreading false teaching and teaching a counterfeit gospel, am I really comfortable contributing to that?

61UgA-K7sDL._UY395_[1]One day I brought some rosary beads along to a FOCUS event, and was showing them to people and talking about how they help you to pray. I did not actually know how to pray the rosary at the time, but I was just looking for some way to affirm my identity as a Catholic. This caught the attention of Helen Yim, who recognised the rosary beads as a typically Catholic accessory, even though she didn’t understand their significance or what they are used for. She was completely unimpressed.

She sent me a text message saying “Alex, you can’t bring those ‘rose beads’ to FOCUS again. If you do, I will have to take you off the leadership team. Salvation is found IN CHRIST ALONE” I responded with “Of course salvation is found in Christ alone. What has that got to do with Catholicism or rosary beads? Catholics are in complete agreement. Besides, I’m resigning from my position anyway; I don’t feel comfortable serving alongside people who believe in heresy any more.” Helen clearly was a victim of the anti-Catholic indoctrination and propaganda that is so rampant among Evangelicals. She was probably convinced that I was flirting with heresy and my salvation was in question.

Early Catholic Days

I signed up to the UTS Catholic society and integrated myself into one of their small groups. I found the Catholic small groups to be an intriguing contrast to the Credo bible studies. The Catholic society really was much smaller and more incognito than Credo, with almost no noticeable presence on Campus. During the small groups, we would discuss saints and church documents, rather than reading the bible. This was in direct contrast to Credo, which had a singular focus on the scriptural text in both small groups and public talks. At first I found this very jarring, as my evangelical formation had indoctrinated me into the erroneous idea that Christianity is primarily about studying the bible. I later found out that Catholics place much more emphasis on Liturgical participation and the multi-faceted life of prayer.

I started going to Sunday mass at St Benedict’s, Broadway; a Catholic church only a few steps away from St Barnabas. I was introduced to what seemed at the time to be an intriguing quirk of the Catholic religion: daily mass. Every now and then I attended daily mass and confession. I quickly wrangled with the idea that there is a “Sunday Obligation” and that the acceptable times to fulfil this obligation are any time on a Sunday or the Saturday night vigil.

high-mass[1].jpgFor about the first two years of being a Catholic, mass was entirely cryptic and impenetrable to me. I had not memorised the structure or the responses, and the language employed in the prayers was so high and lofty that it may as well have been Latin, even though it was English. Some times it actually was Latin.

The Sunday service really didn’t appeal to me as much as the old protestant services did. The homilies were cryptic and not at all evangelical. The Priest never actually explained the bible readings, and would instead focus on moral exhortation. The sense of community in the parish was practically non-existent. At St Benedict’s there was a super evangelical Singaporean girl called Priscilla Liem who managed to hold together a basic sense of fellowship among some of the students and young workers, but it really was nothing compared to the spontaneous and naturally loving community that I had experienced in my time hanging out with Protestants. The parish really seemed dead: most people would just stay for the liturgy, receive communion and go straight home. Some people would even leave before the final blessing or during the communion hymn.

This was not something that I had anticipated during my internet research into Catholicism. I began to feel isolated and disillusioned, and started to have doubts about whether I had made the right decision to return to Catholicism and renounce Protestantism. However I decided to stick it out and keep going to mass and confession because Catholicism simply made so much sense on paper.

During this time I still had the thought hovering over my head that perhaps the Orthodox church is the true church rather than the Catholic church. However as time went by I began to ponder the role of the Papacy. It became clear to me that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the apostles and the church, and therefore whoever succeeds Peter inherits that position as leader. I realised that the way to identify the one true church was first to look for the Pope, and then to look for the bishops who are in communion with that Pope. Once I understood this principle, I begin to intellectually feel much more comfortable in my choice of Catholicism over Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I retained a great respect for Eastern theology and it had a large influence over my thinking in the subsequent months.

reformation-conference[1].jpgUnfortunately it was around about this time that I had a minor falling out with Alex Macdonald, and we fell out of regular contact for some time. I had massive respect for Alex Macdonald, and he had somewhat mentored me through my post-cult early Christian days. He had lent me books and been extremely generous with his time, reading the bible with me and having deep and meaningful chats. Naturally I wanted to share my Catholic journey with him. When I met up with him, we ended up getting into violent debates. Alex was obviously very concerned at my movement towards Catholicism. I suspect he felt as though he had invested a lot in me and was a tad distraught that I was drifting away towards something he didn’t really understand or agree with. Our arguments were passionate, as we both shared our core convictions with each other. Alex was convinced that the Catholic church had gone astray in the middle ages and that the reformation had got the church “Back on track”. I was convinced that sacred tradition and an infallible magisterium were essential components of the one true church and it would be inappropriate and catastrophic to dispense with them.

Me and Alex went our separate ways, and I haven’t been in regular contact with him ever since. I catch up with him sporadically and he has since mellowed out and accepts me as the Catholic that I am. I of course still have tremendous respect for him and wish him nothing but the best.

Relationship Adventures

virgin1[1].jpgDuring this time, I had also been maintaining a long distance relationship with Mindy. We had incredibly long chats on facebook messenger, and sent very long emails to each other. We were incredibly open and honest with each other. Perhaps a little too honest. Mindy revealed some truly shocking things about her past and I was totally open about my virginity and insecurities surrounding sex. She didn’t realise I was a virgin. I had been pulling the Chinese girls off their boyfriends left right and centre during China mission so she obviously just assumed I had a lot of sexual experience in my pre-Christian days. Admittedly I had tried to cultivate this misconception in a spirit of “fake it till you make it” – a remnant of my pick up artist days. But I figured honesty was the best policy. I thought to myself, “If she thinks I’m going to be a God in the sack and we end up getting married, how disappointed is she going to be when she finds out that I’m an inexperienced virgin?” With this thought in mind, I decided to drop the “Virgin” bombshell on her. She took it extremely well, although admitted that she was surprised and that I had successfully fooled her into thinking otherwise. She reassured me that it was nothing to worry about.

Eventually, Mindy managed to get me to swap out my old Nokia 3315 for a slightly better model which had the capacity to run Whatsapp. This was a crazy learning experience for me. My relationship failures from my high school days had taught me to distrust internet chat software, so I had some psychological barriers to overcome in order to engage with favicon[1]Mindy in this way. Whatsapp was on 24/7 from then on out, and I was receiving a constant stream of messages from Mindy. This was unknown territory for me: as an introvert who generally shunned technology, being connected in this way was a somewhat scary prospect which would take some time to adjust to. I was used to spending most of my waking hours alone, in the company of myself, enjoying being with my own thoughts. But all of a sudden I was having to put up with this constant barrage of messages from Hong Kong. But of course, I was in love, so I was willing to give it a go in order to keep some fire in a long distance relationship.

During our many facebook and email sessions, I dropped the “Catholic” bombshell on her as well. I informed her that I was thinking of converting to Catholicism and attempted to explain some of the reasons why. I assured her that the prospect of converting does not appeal to me because I am quite happy as an Evangelical, nevertheless I feel compelled to investigate the Catholic claims. I was secretly hoping that she would come along for the ride and investigate Catholicism with me, by my side. I was hoping that she would have an open mind, like me, and be able to overcome her prejudices and entrenched bias against Catholicism. Unfortunately this was not the case, and this fundamental difference in personality and outlook led to relationship disaster further down the line.

Mindy had some reservations about my becoming Catholic. She didn’t actually understand what Catholicism was all about: It was a scary and foreign concept to her. The only things she knew about Catholicism were what she had learned at CBS and what her Evangelical ministers had told her, and this was obviously not going to be a friendly assessment of the faith. I ended up hiding just how Catholic I had become since she had last seen me. It was an easy thing to hide in the context of a long distance relationship: I just simply had to avoid talking about my conversion.

Mindy Returns to Sydney

10404324_10153064836764813_5048957769984912660_n[1].jpgEventually December rolled around again. Mindy was scheduled to return to Sydney for her graduation ceremony at UNSW. She brought her whole family, complete with Godparents. I had not seen her since China Mission six months ago, and was incredibly excited to meet her face to face again. We organised to meet up at the AFES headquarters near UNSW just prior to her graduation ceremony. When I finally got to see her in person again, I had forgotten how much shorter than me she was and it sort of threw me off. Nevertheless she looked gorgeous and I was so happy to finally see her in person.

I sat with Mindy’s family and watched her graduation ceremony, and then afterwards her family left us alone and we went to dinner with some of Mindy’s friends from UNSW. The following few days I spent hanging out with Mindy and her family. We went to the fish markets, I visited the flat they were staying in at Zetland and brought an entire lobster in my backpack for dinner, we visited the opera house. I invited Mindy to an evening art exhibition put on by some friends from UTS housing. It was great to finally see her and be in each other’s presence.

Mindy’s family went back to China, but Mindy remained in Sydney on holiday. NTE 2014 was rapidly approaching and both me and Mindy had signed up and were looking forward to it. I recall when it finally arrived. All of Mindy’s friends were advising her not to get into a relationship with me seeing as I was flirting with Catholicism so much. Mindy had a catch up with Helen Yim, and I can’t help but speculate that Helen told her in extremely strong words to break up and stay away from me. There was a moment during free time when we were sitting outside on some grass. It was a great opportunity to kick back and relax in each other’s presence, but Mindy had other plans.

hail-mary1[1].jpgShe started interrogating me about my Catholicism, asking me why I’m not satisfied with the Bible and why I need to become Catholic. Why couldn’t I just stay as an evangelical? The discussion slowly heated up and eventually both of us were feeling high strung and emotional. It finally got to a point where Mindy strongly implied that Catholics are not Christians and it was the final straw and ultimate insult for me. I stomped off in exasperation and sorrow. The next session was starting, but I didn’t go. I just sat at the edge of the oval, praying. It was at this time that I prayed my first Hail Mary as an act of spiritual defiance against the bigoted and ignorant Protestants who surrounded me. This was a crucial turning point in my Catholic journey.: I had finally opened my heart to beloved Mary, even if in a spirit of defiance and martyrdom rather than love and devotion.

Following NTE there was a short mission trip. I went to Sadlier in western Sydney with some of the Credo UTS crew, while Mindy went up to Port Macquarie with all the people from the Cantonese FOCUS church at UNSW. We stayed in communication during our respective missions, and Mindy invited me to come and visit Port Macquarie once my mission was complete. I caught the train up the coast and arrived at Port Macquarie, where Mindy’s lovely host family picked me up in their big car and drove me to their big house. This turned into a nice little holiday spent with Mindy and her host family, who were incredibly hospitable.

The Holy Grail

We returned to Sydney, and it turned out that Mindy had nowhere concrete lined up where she could stay. She got in contact with Ai, a Japanese girl from UTS FOCUS who lived in one of the other UTS Housing complexes – Bulga Ngurra. Ai was happy to welcome her into her flat, providing a mattress and bedroom in which she could sleep.

However that’s not exactly how things played out. Mindy would spend every second night in my flat staying up late chatting with me and my flatmates. As the clock ticked away, she would propose that it’s far too late to disturb Ai and can’t she just stay with me? It seemed like the easiest thing to do, so I agreed. And of course I still suffered from a desire to be intimate with a girl and was secretly hoping that she would stay.

Naturally, we started to indulge in some serious fornicating. At first I just let her sleep in my bed while I slept on the floor. But one night while we were chatting in the dim light of my red lava lamp, she suddenly rolled off the bed, landed on my chest and started making out with me. This was a pretty exciting and new experience for me and I let myself enjoy it. Things quickly turned extremely sensual, sexual and erotic, without us technically having sex.

Things carried on this way as the days rolled by, and I would sometimes spend all day in my bed with Mindy, just rolling around with her; we were tickling each other, kissing each other all over and physically playing with each other. It was all very fun, but of course there was this terrible guilt gnawing away at me. I intuitively knew I shouldn’t be doing this.

131122232657-sex-couple-feet-bed-super-tease[1].jpgOne day I finally arrived at the destination I had been craving prior to my experimentation with psychedelics: I had sexual intercourse. This was a very strange experience. It was over incredibly quickly and I felt somewhat confused about it afterwards. I had a chat to my psychologist at EIPS the next day in order to attempt to integrate the experience. It really all felt somewhat anticlimactic, and it was honestly nothing like what I had been expecting all these years (Of course, I had a totally warped view of sex thanks to my prior porn addiction; this probably contributed to the emotions I was feeling). I also had a whole bunch of religious guilt getting in the way. It seemed clear to me that I had seriously sinned and I really should have saved this experience for marriage, when I could have properly appreciated it.

The Arguments Begin

During this time spent in my bedroom, we got talking about matters of faith. She still was concerned about my Catholicism, and I was unimpressed with her Protestantism. It was at this time that we had our second serious fight. She was trying to convince me that the bible is the word of God, but the way she was going about it was entirely irrational. She was completely unable to account for the canon, the source of the bible’s authority and so on. I accused her of having blind faith. She accused me of being a “young Christian” and belittled my serious reservations by calling them “young Christian questions”. Her pride was manifest: she thought she was a better Christian than me just because she had grown up in a Christian family and therefore had technically been one longer than I had. This fight was a total yelling match and I’m sure the rest of the people in my flat could hear every detail.

But we were in love, so we were able to push past this fight and continue fornicating, and hanging out during the day. At one stage, when I was dropping her off at Ai’s house in a futile attempt to regain some moral cleanliness in my life, she stopped me and started talking to me in an extremely emotional yet serious tone.

hqdefault[3]“Promise that you will move to Hong Kong after you graduate” she pouted. “Promise me that you will never leave me”: She was threatening to call off the relationship if I don’t move to Hong Kong to be with her ASAP. I was willing, but I didn’t want to commit to such a drastic life change without thinking about it first. But Mindy was relentless: She pulled every string she could think of in order to try and get me to make this crazy promise. She put on as much pressure as she could. Eventually I caved and made the promise. She was satisfied.

Long Distance Again

Mindy’s holiday came to an end and she flew back to Hong Kong. 2015 had arrived.

I had spoken to Helen Yim about my plans for the future and she advised me to enrol in TESOL and learn to teach English. My degree up to that point had been in Information Technology and I absolutely hated it, so I was looking for some sort of exit strategy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.

crazy-party[1].jpgI begun to talk to Mindy every night on facetime. As well as talking to her non-stop throughout the day on whatsapp. We would call and catch up for hours, which severely interfered with my sleep and had a fatal effect on my mood stability. At the same time, somehow during this semester our flat had been designated as the party flat. Every night until midnight – and sometimes longer – there would be crazy Europeans partying like animals right outside my bedroom door. Half of the flat was keen on the situation, and half of the flat absolutely hated it. It was keeping me up well past a healthy bed time and I had to invest in some uncomfortable ear plugs just to sleep through the night.

During the mid semester break I made a trip to Hong Kong to visit Mindy. Her Grandma was kind enough to let me stay with them in their already overcrowded flat. Naturally, we continued our fornication and intercourse at every opportunity. I was slowly gaining more experience with sex, which made me feel good. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with a crushing guilt, knowing that I really shouldn’t be doing this. I was also terrified at the prospect that Mindy might get pregnant: We never used contraception.

We continued to argue and fight over theological matters during this trip. On the day before I was to return to Sydney, Mindy looked at me with an overcast face and said “I’m not happy with this relationship”, clearly implying that she wanted to break up. I wasn’t having it, and managed to convince her that it’s not all bad and things will work out: A Catholic and a Protestant getting married is totally possible and feasible.

Wedding-Proposal-1c-T-Shirts[1].jpgAt the airport on the day of my departure, I got down on one knee and proposed to her. This wasn’t really as big a deal as it sounds. We were practically already engaged, seeing as we had started the relationship under the proviso that we would be married within two years.

I returned to Sydney and continued studying my diploma in TESOL. News of our “Official” engagement leaked to facebook and all sorts of people who I didn’t even know came up to me and congratulated me.

As the semester came to an end and the mid year break approached, Mindy brought up the promise I had made to her when I was in Sydney. She started putting pressure on me to move to Hong Kong. My doctors, family and psychologist were doing everything they could to convince me that this was a bad idea: In Hong Kong I would be completely cut off from every single support network that I have; no more doctors; no more friends; no more family; no more medicare; no more cheap drugs.

But I wanted to remain a virtuous person who keeps his promises, and so against my better judgement, I gave in to Mindy’s nagging and got ready to depart for Hong Kong. In retrospect, it was incredibly manipulative of Mindy to have made me make this promise in the first place. I was not prepared at all to start a new life in Hong Kong.

The Big Move

My bags were packed. I had a suitcase full of drugs that would last me for months, and another bag loaded with clothes and some books. When I arrived in Hong Kong I had no job and nowhere to live. Mindy’s minister kindly let me stay at his house for a few days while I found my feet.

hongkong[1].jpg

I found myself living in a “Tong Fong” at Tin Shui Wai run by an incredibly dodgy landlord. A Tong Fong is basically a house that has been artificially subdivided into a series of smaller rooms, which are then rented out to poor suckers like me. In my particular Tong Fong, I was living in the kitchen of the flat. My flatmates had to step over me while I was sleeping in order to get their breakfast out of the fridge.

caged-homes[1].jpgYou might be surprised to learn that Tong Fongs are not even the lowest rung on the ladder of Hong Kong housing options. I was spared the fate of living in a “Cage house”: this is basically just a bed in a cage, with a box for you to throw your wallet and passport in while you sleep.

This could not go on for long: my mental state was already pretty shaky, and living in a Tong Fong was not doing anything to help the situation.

I begun to look for a job. I went to an online Hong Kong jobs database and began browsing. I typed “English Teacher” into the search bar and set the category to “Information Technology”. I was incredibly surprised when this actually resulted in a hit: Some English school called “Butterfly milk” was looking for a programmer to come and help them start up a course aimed at teaching technological concepts to children. I thought to myself “This sounds good” and applied for an interview.

The next day I trekked the two stations down the line to Yuen Long, and made my way to this school. In 20 minutes I had conquered the interview and the owner of the school – the half South African, half Cantonese Aaron Mo – was willing to hire me on the spot. I had obviously managed to muster up enough passion for Technology to convince Aaron that I was the real deal.

1200px-YOHO_Town_Phase_1_2011[1].jpgOne of the perks of the job was that it came with relatively comfortable accommodation if I needed it. Aaron’s beautiful girlfriend and assistant, Samantha, took me up for a tour of the flat. The complex was called “YOHO Town”. It was incredibly cramped by Sydney standards, but I could instantly tell that by Hong Kong standards it was luxury living. I asked for the rental price and found out that I would get a great deal: The English school would subsidise over half of the rent because Aaron was planning to use the living room of the flat as a combination office and workshop. I signed up immediately.

When I returned to Tin Shui Wai and attempted to cancel my lease with the owner of the Tong Fong, he wasn’t willing to budge. He wanted to hold onto my bond and two weeks rent and didn’t want to cancel the contract. Mindy got on the phone with him and went into full crazy bitch mode, which freaked him out and forced him to relent and hand over the money.

Life in Hong Kong

I fell into a daily grind: every now and then I would teach English in the school. Most days I would spend programming and building robots up in the flat with another foreign employee – the gorgeous Annika Neumeister from Germany. At the end of the day I would travel on the MTR through the mountains between the New Territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon, so as to meet up with Mindy and go on dates. This happened literally every day, week in and week out. I felt as if I had no time to myself.

Ss._Peter_and_Paul_Church_(Hong_Kong)[1].jpgDuring this time I attended Sunday mass at the local Catholic Church: St Peter and Paul’s, Yuen Long. The congregation consisted almost entirely of Filipino maids and Nigerian workers. It was during my time at this church that I first began to fall in love with Catholic liturgy. The music and singing were heavenly and sublime. The prayers of the mass began to come alive for me and resonate deep within my heart. The prayer of the centurion filled me with zeal and conviction as I repeated it every Sunday: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. I could relate to this prayer on the deepest level: I knew I was a sinner in need of healing, and as I repeated the formula I was always shaking with a strange combination of hope and despair: I thought to myself “I know you can heal me Lord; please, do it!”

Despite the fact that I was friendly with the priests at this church, I didn’t form any relationships with the congregation. We simply couldn’t relate to each other. I was a supposedly “rich” gwai lo, whereas they were all “lower class”.

In contrast to this, each Sunday evening me and Mindy were coming together to visit an English Anglican church on Nathan Road – St Andrews Kowloon. The people at this church were typical Protestant Evangelicals: incredibly warm, friendly and loving. The leadership had all studied in Sydney at Moore College, so the services they delivered felt very familiar and reminded me of my Evangelical days. Despite this warm welcome, I felt a bit unnerved: I was starved for Catholic companionship. I did not want to hang out with heretics. You become the company you keep, and I deeply desired to form some Catholic friendships. These happy Protestants were not what I needed. I became incredibly resistant to attend this church and did not feel happy going to the bible studies that they organised.

10671306_978063365591543_847585719953331907_n[1]As time went by, I really struggled to be productive in my work. I enjoyed teaching English most, and got a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement from this aspect of the job. Whereas when I was stuck behind a computer screen trying to code, my ADHD kicked in and I was simply unable to progress. My personality is also not conducive to “real life” sort of work: I am a very theoretical and academic person; I like to play with ideas and deep concepts; I do not enjoy getting my hands dirty. I reflected upon my work history up to this date and saw the same pattern repeating itself: Even during my time at Cargowise and Macquarie bank, I had struggled to complete the tasks put before me. I simply lacked the interest, passion and competency required to perform in these jobs.

Descent Into Hatred

Now that I was living in Hong Kong, there was not much stopping Mindy from staying at my flat and getting frisky with me on a regular basis. Mindy would often sleep over at my house and we would almost always have sex. At the time I felt guilty and as if it were my fault, but in retrospect I feel comfortable placing the blame entirely on her: I really was trying to stop this sinful behaviour; I was doing my best to prevent Mindy from staying at my flat too late. However whenever I would try to put pressure on her to leave and go home, she would go into pout mode and I would feel guilty and relent, letting her stay and hoping to God that we wouldn’t slip up again. She would basically rape me: She would wait until I had taken my sleeping pills and collapsed on the bed, and then snuggle up close to me and start the kissing. I would just reflexively kiss her back, half asleep. Before you know it our clothes were off and I was pounding her into the headboard while she moaned in ecstasy.

I don’t understand what the appeal was for her: I was practically a zombie while under the influence of these antipsychotic pills. Every time, all I really wanted was for it to be over so that I could go back to sleep. It was painful to stay awake, and yet my carnal sex drive kept me awake enough to perform.

sex-stock100[1].jpgSometimes she would seduce me before I took my pills, and we would engage in wild, extended lovemaking sessions, with lots of sweating, screaming, moaning, spanking and whatever else. It finally got to the point where I was having “Good sex”. Compared to my first time – which was over in seconds and very anticlimactic – this sex was amazing. We would go at it for up to an hour at a time.

I finally had my old wish fulfilled: I had sex on tap. But ironically, I no longer wanted it. I honestly wanted to remain chaste and celibate until marriage. Every time after we slipped up, my trust for Mindy died a little more, and my love started to dissipate. I began to hate her and resent her. I wished she would just piss off and leave me be, rather than constantly engineering situations in which we were going to slip up and fuck.

Every time we slipped up, I would be filled with overwhelming guilt, despair and fear of Hell. Premarital sex has been clearly defined as a mortal sin by the Catholic church: I knew my faith well enough to realise what I was doing. I had to awkwardly drag myself to face to face confession Sunday after Sunday to confess this relentless sin. My relief at being back in the state of grace was only temporary, as it would not be long before me and Mindy were rooting again.

1[1].jpgI suspect that our sexual sins directly lead to a disintegration of the relationship, as I no longer trusted her and found it nearly impossible to love her. Every now and then I would skype Jaison back in Sydney: When he asked how I was going with my porn addiction and other sexual sins, I straight up confessed to him what was happening. He was very concerned and advised me to break up with Mindy. I was extremely resistant to the idea, fooling myself into thinking that we could work things out and it would all be better once we were married. In retrospect, I really should have followed his advice. Perhaps if I had threatened to leave Mindy earlier, she would have made more of an effort to stop screwing me and things would have turned out alright.

A Defiant Gesture

Some time during my Hong Kong stay, we had got in contact with the lead pastor of St Andrew’s – Alex McCoy – and asked if he could help us do some pre-marriage counselling. He readily agreed and we set a date for our first appointment.

Bp_Greg[1].jpgPrior to our appointment, we had been visiting the St Andrew’s Sunday evening service regularly for quite some time. At one of these services, Alex McCoy was performing the Anglican communion rite. He invited everyone to come up and receive the bread and wine with the usual Protestant disclaimer: “If you do not trust Jesus to forgive your sins and save you then please remain in your seat”. As a Catholic I understood that it is inappropriate to receive communion outside of a Catholic liturgy, so I remained in my seat. This action caught the eye of Alex McCoy. After the service had officially concluded, he made a beeline straight to where me and Mindy were sitting and said hi.

With a concerned look on his face, Alex immediately asked me why I hadn’t gone up to receive communion. For the first time I revealed my Catholicism to him. He gave me a puzzled and bemused look and said “But you’re not a real Catholic are you? I thought you went to Barneys back in Sydney?” Mindy had been trying to hide my Catholicism from friends and new acquaintances, as it was an awkward thing for her to explain why she was dating someone from another religion. As such, when I had first met Alex McCoy and he had asked what church I went to back home in Sydney, Mindy immediately jumped in and said “St Barnabas Broadway” before I could say anything. Alex quickly responded to this with “Ah, such a great church; I know lots of the guys who go there” and the conversation flowed on.

It felt good to finally own my faith publicly, so I insisted “No I’m a legit Catholic: I go to mass every Sunday, regular confession; the lot!” Alex McCoy looked a tad concerned, and the conversation moved on to other topics.

The Anti-Catholic Challenge

After one Sunday evening service, when everyone goes and has dinner together, I found myself in a food court dedicated to ramen noodles and sitting next to Alex McCoy. “So tell me about this Catholicism of yours” he said with a big grin, and a friendly and inquisitive look on his face. Rather than doing that, I just told him the story of how I became a Christian (Part 1 of this series). He listened politely, and at the end of the story asked “But what about that Catholic stuff? What do you think about Papal infallibility?” I responded that I don’t see how the church can possibly function without it and he leaned back in his chair and scoffed.

good-works[1].jpgAlex revealed that he himself had grown up in the Catholic church and came to reject it when he started reading the bible for himself. I internally rolled my eyes: this was such a typical ex-Catholic testimony. I had heard it a million times before during my time in Credo. When he says “I started reading the bible for myself”, what he really is saying is “Some friendly evangelicals sat down and indoctrinated me into their heresy by quoting the bible at me apart from it’s Catholic context.” I was unimpressed. Alex started to talk about how Catholicism teaches that you have to merit your salvation by works (which is total bullshit) and how he had to reject such a clearly heretical theological system after reading Ephesians 2:8-9, which claims that we are saved by grace through faith.

He continued to rattle off his objections to Catholicism, all of which were entirely inaccurate misconceptions. I tried to remain polite and composed, but I felt helpless in the face of this baffling display of ignorance and bigotry. How is it that someone could grow up in the Catholic church and come away with such erroneous notions as this? Did he not bother to investigate what the church actually teaches? It seemed clear to me that he had simply been taken in by the friendly demeanour of the Evangelicals who had approached him during his university days and soaked up whatever lies and nonsense they fed to him about Catholicism. I had seen it happen many times already and I was totally confident that it was exactly the same story with Alex.

“Marriage Counselling”

st-andrew-church-kowloon-hong-kong_001[1].jpgEventually the date for our “Marriage counselling” rolled around and me and Mindy made the trek to the St Andrews administrative office next to the church. “Marriage counselling” basically ended up being Alex McCoy trying to convince Mindy not to marry me, whilst trying to get me to apostatise from Catholicism and return to the Protestant heresy. He had somehow got it into his head that the best and most pastoral way to approach me was to launch an all out assault on my faith. He seemed to have made it his mission to convert me back to Protestantism.

The only reason I tolerated this attack is because I really enjoy talking about theology, and in Hong Kong I was incredibly lonely and starved for someone to talk to about this topic, which I love and is dear to my heart. A theological argument like this was better than the banal crap that I had been talking about with everyone else I met in Hong Kong, even if it was a high stakes, stressful conversation.

saved_stamp.GIFI remember at one point Alex McCoy was saying “If you say works contribute to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross”. I tried to respond but he just kept saying that same thing over and over again like a mantra. Eventually something clicked within me and I totally lost it. I responded firmly with “If you say faith contributes to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross.” He sneered at me and accused me of being facetious. I was unnerved and said that maybe I was, just a little. He backed down and moved onto other topics. But I wasn’t being facetious, I was dead serious: This was a light bulb moment that has stuck with me to this day. It suddenly became clear to me that “Faith alone” is nonsense if you believe that faith has the power to objectively justify you: The cross is objectively sufficient. I realised then and there that salvation does not depend on me in any way whatsoever, and this includes faith. I had encountered my first inkling of the Lutheran theology of salvation as unconditional promise. Later on this theology would fully take form in my mind and capture my imagination, developing into a robust doctrine of universal salvation. I had Alex McCoy to thank for it, at least in part.

He began to bash me over the head with “assurance”. He was leaning in and imploring me “but don’t you want assurance of salvation?” trying to entice me over to his tribe with baseless promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. What he utterly failed to realise is that an assurance of salvation is completely meaningless without first having an assurance of truth. If your church is fallible then whatever assurance you have with regards to your salvation is also entirely fallible and untrustworthy. I tried to convey this to him but he just refused to hear it and moved on to his next perceived pet peeve with Catholicism.

512R6DPg3LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgHe pulled out some anti-catholic books which he recommended that I read, giving particular attention to “Nothing in my hand I bring” by Ray Galea. I responded that Mindy had already given them to me and I had already read them and found them entirely unconvincing for a variety of reasons. He was obviously frustrated at this point and stuck for what to say next.

Our first “Marriage counselling” session ended on a dissonant note, with Alex McCoy closing with a prayer that went something along the lines of “I don’t know how we can pray to you tonight Lord, considering not all of us here actually worship you…” Classic. Pastoral and ecumenical brownie points to you Mr McCoy.

I found the entire experience to be completely traumatic, as his relentless assault against Catholicism had put me in a hyper-defensive state of mind. Unfortunately the trauma didn’t end with his closing prayer, because Mindy continued to argue with me after we left his office and headed home. She was just as bigoted and anti-catholic as he was, and ten times as ignorant! I really began to hate and despise her for her pigheadedness and theological stupidity. Was I really going to marry this utter idiot?

Our second “marriage counselling” session went down in much the same way as the first. Alex pulled out all stops and fired all canons in an attempt to take me down. We argued about the sacrificial nature of the mass, transubstantiation, indulgences, Mary and everything else. Whenever I made an attempt to respond to his objections he would immediately cut in with “Where is that in the bible?” Every time he did this I would just roll my eyes. “Why does it have to be in the bible? I don’t care if it’s in the bible or not: The tradition of the church is sufficient to prove the doctrine’s validity.” After a couple of Alex[1].pngthese exchanges Alex caught on to the fact that I was a died in the wool papist and was not going to fall for his Fundamentalist sophistries.

Alex leaned back in his chair and exhaled a loud sigh of exasperation. He didn’t know where to go from here: I was obviously committed to my Catholic faith and would not budge from my position solely based on his bullshit misconceptions and lies about Catholicism, which I had encountered a million times before during my days amongst the apostate ex-Catholics in Credo.

Descent to Depression

When I wasn’t fucking her, I was constantly fighting with Mindy. Here was the woman I was intending to marry and share my life and journey with, and yet I couldn’t even talk about my passions without it turning into a massive theological debate and then blowing up into a massive conflict. Mindy was constantly accusing me of being a Pharisee. Ironically I later realised that the label fits her far better, because she believes that “faith” is a condition of salvation and she is convinced that she has met this condition, thus puffing herself up with pride and elitism as she considers the poor plebs who don’t happen to share her faith and will therefore “rightly” burn in Hell for all eternity. It eventually got to the point where we simply avoided talking about theological topics completely.

I started to have serious doubts about whether a marriage between us was going to work out: We would be going to separate churches, and refusing to talk about that which was most dear to us – our relationship with God. We would be fighting over how to raise our children. No one should be going into a marriage expecting this level of turmoil. A couple of arguments here and there are to be expected, but this was next level.

I felt surrounded by enemies in Hong Kong. The only friends I had were the Protestants from St Andrew’s, and even though they were incredibly friendly, the fact was they were not Catholic, and this fact bubbled to the surface during bible studies. Whenever I went to bible studies with these people I always had to bite my tongue and not say anything, because I regularly found myself disagreeing on points that the entire group agreed on. This made me feel like a failed witness to my faith, and was incredibly discouraging and disheartening.

39571064_ml-ml0y0tb5jx377t8wn84fjif9oq67auyh3rcfkqp5fc[1].jpgI remember one bible study I worked up the courage to actually openly question the consensus of the group concerning this idea of total depravity/total inability. It seemed clear to me that God does not give commandments unless he knows we are able to meet them. The group disagreed, they were convinced that we were doomed to be sinners until Jesus comes back. Whereas Catholic doctrine teaches that it is within our power to be perfect, provided that we depend upon the grace of God. The group naturally jumped on me and we ended up going in circles based on different assumptions between Catholics and Protestants. This was stressful, as it was me on my own trying to stand up to 10 other people. Naturally after the bible study I ended up in a fight with Mindy. She said “I’m happy you finally contributed something, but you really are way too optimistic”. So much for Protestant joy.

As a response to the onslaught of Alex McCoy, the arguments with Mindy, and the heresy that I was being bombarded with in the heathen bible studies; I ended up reading theology and apologetics 24/7. When I was supposed to be working; I would be reading theology. When I was supposed to be sleeping; I would be reading theology. When I was travelling home on the train; I would be reading theology on my phone. It was during this time that I became more and more familiar with the eclectic orthodoxy blog, as well as universalist theology in general. I also got entirely hung up on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: It seemed like such nonsense to me, but I was determined to understand it. I ended up going in mental circles on this issue for over a year.

I really wanted to reclaim some time for myself. I felt entirely overwhelmed after hanging out with Mindy so often. I began staying up all night and watching star trek until the wee hours of the morning. I would set my alarm for 10am and end up going to bed at 4am every night. This was not psychologically healthy at all.

I felt like I had no time to myself and was sacrificing everything for Mindy and getting nothing in return. I felt like I had given up so much for this relationship but she hadn’t given up anything at all. I felt like I was putting in all the effort on the religious front; attending those cursed bible studies and Sunday services in an ecumenical spirit, whereas she wanted nothing to do with my Catholic faith at all. I felt ripped off.

Yelling-AdobeStock_70020912-copy[1].jpgI was constantly fighting with Mindy, and not just about theological matters. I was always the one saying sorry, and she would never admit that she was wrong or had any part to play in the conflict. She was constantly threatening to break up with me.

I began to feel incredibly depressed as I considered the prospect of having to endure this for my entire life after I had locking myself into this relationship via marriage. I felt as if I was locked into an entirely depressing path: I was stuck working a job for which I was totally incompetent, and engaged to a fiancée who was utterly unable to see eye to eye with me on important issues.

I was completely terrified at the prospect of having children with Mindy: How were we supposed to bring them up? Which church would we go to? I insisted that we were going to attend both Catholic and Protestant church every Sunday, but Mindy didn’t want to play ball and complained about this to no end.

Furthermore, actually getting to the point of marriage felt nigh impossible: there were so many hoops to jump through. Mindy was refusing to have a Catholic ceremony, which meant that I had to get a special dispensation from the Sydney Archbishop to both have a Protestant service as well as marry a Protestant at all. We also had to do some compulsory catholic marriage prep course. Mindy was obsessing over finding the perfect wedding dress while I was trying to organise a logistical nightmare and track down an appropriate church and minister to perform the wedding in Sydney.

I felt an incredible sense of injustice, as I had spent so much time and energy investigating Protestantism and trying to make sense of it, but Mindy had not reciprocated. She had invested exactly zero effort in trying to understand my faith. I felt completely ripped off, and the trust in our relationship continued to break down.

I was coming home every night incredibly late. I would take my sedatives and board the MTR from Mei Foo to Yuen Long nearly every night. I had to endure the hellish tunnel that runs beneath the mountains between Mei Foo and Yuen Long, falling asleep on my feet. As I disembarked the train and begun walking back to my flat, I was full to exploding point with anger, frustration, resentment, rage and hatred for myself, Mindy, my situation, God, and life in general.

I was feeling utterly terrified of hell for most of my waking hours. I felt incredibly awkward asking for confession (my church at Yuen Long did not have regular confession times and you had to make a special request) and confessing the same old sin every bloody time.

In between my confessions I was struggling to muster up perfect contrition and utterly failing to do so. At the time I was unaware of the unconditional promises of God, and I was therefore unable to place my faith in them. I was spiritually walking in darkness, despite my deep, profound and prayerful relationship with God.

suicide-jump[1].jpgI was incredibly stressed and depressed, and I began to think about suicide all the time. I didn’t actually have any intentions of going ahead with it, but I was just constantly pondering it. I remember always glancing out at my balcony and thinking to myself “Gee that’s high, I could so easily jump off there and kill myself if I wanted to”

A Holiday to Sydney

During Christmas of 2015, while me and Mindy were walking through Mei Foo to Mindy’s house, I totally broke down crying. I missed my family so much. Pretty soon after this incident, Mindy organised a trip to Sydney for my 2016 birthday.

Once we had arrived in Sydney, I just wanted to be with my family, but Mindy had other plans: She wanted to travel to the blue mountains and attend the LIFT (Looking Into Full Time Ministry) conference that was organised by the UNSW Evangelical society. I felt obliged to accompany her, and so for four precious days that I could have spent with my family, I left and trekked to the blue mountains with Mindy.

The LIFT conference was hell. The preacher was Joshua Ng, another Hongkie. Josh launched into a vitriolic rant against the “evil and depraved catholic church who teach a false gospel of salvation by works”. My blood was boiling over and I want to get up out of my seat and walk out of the room, but I ended up sitting still and fuming. Mindy realised how awkward the situation was and started fumbling in her bag for something to distract me with.

PodcastPicBlueBack-400x400[1].pngLater on during LIFT conference, we were walking from one session to another, and Mindy was chatting to yet another ex-Catholic. This guy was saying the most offensive things about Catholicism: Claiming that his Catholic parents were not Christian and are most certainly going to burn in Hell. He shared a brief testimony of his conversion out of Catholicism, and as usual it was the same old predictable nonsense that every other ex-Catholic says: “I read the bible and realised that it contradicts Catholicism so I left”. I was holding hands with Mindy as we walked with this guy and I suddenly just wanted to get away. I wanted to toss her hand away and just escape this depressing existence.

When we returned to Sydney, Mum totally refused to cooperate with my wedding plans. She kept complaining that she “hates weddings” and “wouldn’t even go to her own wedding if she had the choice”. This frustrated me and depressed me even more. Marriage was supposed to be one of the most important events in my life and I wanted my family to be there, which was the entire reason we were going to have the ceremony in Sydney. Mum kept saying “Just invite your father” and I was like “are you freaking kidding? I want my immediate family to be there!”

Mindy managed to cut my time with my family short by another two days. She dragged me down to Melbourne to have “dinner” with her extended family. She was expecting me to have a perfect understanding of all the nuances of Chinese culture and behave like a Chinese gentleman, even though I don’t understand the language. During the actual dinner her family were incredibly rude and inhospitable to me and generally tried to ignore me. I was not accepted by these people at all. After the utter failure of a dinner I immediately headed to Melbourne’s “The Croft” bar and started pounding back shots while chatting with the bar staff. I spent 100 dollars on “Syringe shots”, and had my first hot alcoholic beverage.

crazy.PNGI knew that I was incredibly depressed at this point, but I was unable to discern just how bad and dangerous the situation was. Luckily, I had scheduled a check up with the team at EIPS. I reported that I was thinking about killing myself a lot, and my psychologist – Alexandra Goymour – was incredibly concerned. She asked me a series of questions in order to work out exactly how bad a place I was in. At the conclusion of her questions, it was completely obvious to her that the situation was balancing on a knifes edge. She exhorted me to return to Sydney ASAP. I figured, “Doctors orders” and so agreed to do it. However Mindy was a big concern: she was very manipulative and had managed to thoroughly get me under her thumb. Obviously she was going to be very resistant to the idea of my returning to Sydney.

We concluded the holiday and returned to Hong Kong. I was only intending to come back for a month, so that I could tie up loose ends, pack up my possessions and then fly back to Sydney. Mindy had been alerted to the recommendation of my psychologist that I return to Sydney, and she was already doing her best to stamp the idea out of my mind. I just went along with it and pretended to relent, but secretly I had every intention of escaping Hong Kong for good by the end of April.

Finally Seeing the Light

One night during my final month in Hong Kong, I was going about my usual business: binge on star trek; pound back a couple of Tsing Taos; read theology articles at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Around about 4am I finally slammed my laptop shut and attempted to fall asleep. As I was rolling around in bed, many theological ideas and concepts that I had encountered over the past 24 months were floating around in my mind.

Alex McCoy’s words came back to me: The Sufficiency of the Cross. The beautiful eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov was flooding my mind’s eye: A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The visionary words of St Isaac hovered in my consciousness: Those in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. I was seriously pondering the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who I claimed to worship: If God wants to save me, is it really possible that he could fail in the attempt?

And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all made sense. I realised that I believed in the greater hope. I realised that I believed in universal salvation.

Omnipotent[1].jpgI sat up straight in bed, gasped and covered my mouth with my hand in shock. I begun laughing to myself and was full of wonder – I actually understand all this stuff, it really does make sense, and I actually believe it! There is no need to fear damnation, for either myself or my friends and family. I can rest assured in the confident hope that all of us will arrive safely in Heaven. Salvation does not depend on us in any way, it depends entirely on God. There is nothing that can stop him or stand in his way. Not even death, sin, unrepentance or Hell can thwart his salvific will. God can and will conquer everyone and everything. What can we do but rejoice?

I had finally discovered the good news of Christianity. After 4 years of being an active Christian, I had finally understood the Gospel.

(Go to “Testimony: Universalist to Priest”)

Hermeneutics 101 – Catholicism and the Council of Trent: An Anathema Against Assurance

“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”

Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.

AnathemaIt is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Catholics simply do not have assurance. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with assurance and gospel joy at the promise that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.

Catholics have been taught that they can have no assurance that they are “saved”; they can have no assurance that they will persevere to the end; they can have no assurance that they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.

It is my conviction that all of this uncertainty is a toxic parasite on Catholicism which has been sapping the joy from our congregations for over a thousand years. It has been around for far too long and needs to be done away with once and for all. It is my conviction that things really needn’t be this way: Catholics are well within their dogmatic and ecclesiastical rights to have the same assurance of salvation that the Protestants are currently enjoying. Lets pull apart this anathema from Trent to see why.

An Exploration of Certainty

189289836[1].pngWhat exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.

The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.

Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.

We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.

Assurance: Are You Saved?

AssuranceThis principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.

It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.

In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:

Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.

ordinateur-de-bureau-pc-1456070535WEH[1].jpgBut here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.

I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.

To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.

When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.

This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?

It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.

AssuranceFurthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective, epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.

In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?

Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.

This is exactly why Catholics have a doctrine of purgatory: You may indeed be guaranteed your salvation, however your sins still have consequences: if you are not repentant you will burn in the hellfire until you repent.

AnathemaThis is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.

I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.

Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!

One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

assuranceNow we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.

So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.